👉🏼 What are the main barriers displaced persons face regarding accessing financial services ?
By financial inclusion, we understand non-discriminatory and affordable access to financial services. The UNHCR reminds that “many refugees have no access to banks and other mainstream financial services. This creates an enormous hurdle on their way to self-reliance and economic independence. Because without a bank account, they lack a safe place to save and receive money, and have much fewer options to make payments or access loans. In short, without such services, they can’t fully participate in a country’s economy or build a stable life for themselves and their families.”
Refugees’ financial needs evolve over time, depending on their journey and situation. The table below, published in 2017 by Micol Pistelli, financial inclusion expert at the UNHCR, details different phases and related needs.
The main barriers, before the lack of credit history, lack of financial and/or digital literacy are:
- ID documentation : Strict anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing rules also make international banks more reluctant to open accounts for customers who lack a passport, have expired documents, even when host governments’ directives state that biometric cards or other government-issued ID documentation should suffice. The UNHCR registration card is often not deemed as a valid ID document in this process.
- In order to open a bank account with a regular financial service provider (FSP), individuals also need a residency address. Individuals recently arrived in a transit or host country simply do not yet possess one.
👉🏼 What is the situation in Lebanon ?
As this article is being written, Lebanon commemorates the victims of the Beirut port blast of August 4th 2020. The national economic turmoil and political crisis, exacerbated by the covid19 pandemic crisis has resulted in a critical situation in the country: 90% devaluation of the Lebanese Lira, skyrocketting inflation rate, daily power cuts, collapse of the public services, and workers being often paid their old wages at the official exchange rate despite the increase of prizes for food, housing, electricity, care and daily necessities .
Refugees are living a crisis within a crisis. Back in 2019, the UN found that around 73 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were living below the poverty line. According to the European Union, humanitarian assistance manages to cover only less than half of the basic survival needs of families (ATM cards and vouchers). ATM cash points are even not always working due to overcrowding, unavailability of funds, or other restrictions.
Considering the work limitations imposed on refugees, remote work has become an alternative option to earn an income and sustain one’s family. However, for many refugees, opening a traditional bank account is not possible for them, making it difficult to receive their income.
To get access to cash, two main options are available:
- Cash out companies like Western Union;
- Assistance of a Lebanese friend/relative or a Lebanese legal structure (NGO or company) who’ll receive the money on their bank account and will deliver cash;
These options are often used by the remote hiring company. However, if you don’t know any third-party individual or local association you can rely on, only the private cash-out options are left, with various fees collected on the initial amount you’re due to receive.
At Techfugees Lebanon, our volunteers have been working since 2019 on fostering access to remote work opportunities. Payment is an important part of our research and can be a huge barrier to employment as recruiters are reluctant to deal with non-traditional financial situations. To tackle these challenges for our community members, we partnered this year with Anera, a non-profit who addresses the development and relief needs of refugees and vulnerable communities in Palestine and Lebanon, who became our local financial partner to manage the payments of the refugees going through our remote work programs and training.
Through interviews with financial inclusion experts from the UNHCR and e-payment Lebanese companies , we’ve explored what are the available digital alternatives and their limits. Several NGOs, coding schools, freelance organizations we have been working with keep asking themselves which are the best ways to receive funds to pay refugees in Lebanon. No answer has yet been given.
Our goal through this blogpost is to share publicly testimonials, experiences and research to advocate for more collaboration in regards with financial inclusion and independence within displaced communities.
👉🏼 What are the digital services most used to pay remotely forcibly displaced persons in Lebanon ?
As access to traditional banking is limited for displaced persons in unstable or “irregular” (meaning no traditional valid ID documentation available) situations, they have to adapt and turn themselves to alternative solutions. This part will focus on available digital services enabling displaced persons to receive international money transfers and issue payments for daily life in Lebanon.
TRADITIONAL CASH OUT COMPANIES:
Traditional cashout companies are often the preferred option to pay remote employees with a refugee status in Lebanon. The fees vary from one service provider to another, making financial transactions comparators useful to determine what is the best option for a transfer.
In Lebanon, Western Union, which has even been used internally by NGOs or companies to pay their employees locally. It enables up to $7’500 per transfer and is currently one of the best options to transfer high wages to unbanked remote workers
But some recent testimonials reported encountering difficulties to withdraw in fresh dollars (which is now the only currency accepted to pay for certain services and necessities); Several individuals can bundle and ask for one single transfer to limit the high fees on smaller transfers but this requires a group dynamic and trust.
DIGITAL BANKS, E-WALLETS & MONEY TRANSFER
In general not every international financial institution is available in Lebanon, both for refugees and host communities. Paypal is one example: simply not available in Lebanon. Forget about it !
Let’s go through 4 other products we’ve been testing at Techfugees Lebanon:
1/ Wise (ex-Transferwise) is a multi currency e-wallet providing you with local Bank Accounts, allowing you to: (a) receive money, (b) transfer money to other Transferwise accounts for Free, and (c) pay for products and services online. It also offers a Prepaid Mastercard, which allows you to withdraw cash on almost any ATM or pay in shops but their KYC policy was limiting the access to refugees.
From our research, Wise has already accepted UNHCR registration to open an account in Ethiopia and we’re continuing the research to know whether this could be an applicable solution in Lebanon as well or if it was an exception.
2/ Zaky, first digital wallet to be licensed and approved by the Central Bank of Lebanon was one of the latest interesting payment services developed by Areba – one of the major e-payment providers in the Middle East – specifically for Lebanon and tested by Techfugees team. The user can receive instant international funds in Dollars or LBP.
To transfer money to friends and family, users can choose a contact in their phonebook or enter a mobile number. The recipient will instantly receive an SMS or an in-app notification about the money transfer. The user can request money by posting an invoice the same way. To receive the requested amount, the other user has to confirm the transfer.
When receiving a money transfer, the user can make in-app payments for a few partnering services:
- Local Mobile Recharge (Touch, Alfa);
- International Mobile Recharge ;
- Bill Payment (Ogero, Alfa, Touch)
- Gaming & Entertainment;
- Internet Packages;
The list of providers includes PSN, Xbox, Nintendo, Pubg, Fortnite, Netflix, iTunes store, and more. However the main problem so far, is the lack of cash out options.
3/ Similarly, two well known services in the Middle East like Payoneer or Algopay either don’t have cash out options or stopped working in Lebanon for any user, regardless of their administrative status.
“ I know a lot of people who used Payoneer but it stopped working. I’ve also been in touch with AlgoPay but the cash-out option. You can transfer from an account to another but can’t withdraw the funds. The situation is terrible for everyone here, and getting paid from abroad is a challenge both for refugees and Lebanese. But for refugees it’s a double challenge !” Anonymous, Beirut.
4/ To finish with another suggested option, Deel is a recent payment and HR management digital solution for paying freelancers abroad. They enable recruiters to:
- Draft local freelancers contract through available templates in adapted to the work code of each country including Lebanon and send them to the hired individual through their platform;
- Go through a checklist of administrative documents required to officalise the work contract depending on each country regulation;
- Manage multi-currency remote payments which can be cashed out by the freelancer either through a DeelCard or through connected apps such as Wise or Payoneer.
Unfortunately, as they are attached to a traditional bank institution Morgan Stanley, their KYC policy doesn’t include UNHCR registration card nor expired ID documents. The research continues.
It is our hope at Techfugees that this blog post has shed a light on the current state of affairs regarding existing financial services for refugees, their limits and we are continuing the research for potential alternatives. Our next blogpost on the topic will explore cryptocurrencies alternatives and updates from our local partners explaining how they manage payments onsite.
We would like to encourage you to share with us below some testimonials, challenges that you are facing, ideas that you have and solutions that have been working for you so far. That way, we can leverage collective knowledge and find effective ways to improve financial inclusion for refugees in Lebanon.
👉🏼 Resources to go further:
- Aid millions wasted in Lebanese currency collapse, (2021, The New Humanitarian)
- Lebanon’s financial crisis hits Syrian refugees hard ( 2020, The New Humanitarian)
- Financial lives of Lebanese and Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (2019, Altai Consulting)
- 5 Things You Should Know About Financial Services for Refugees (2018, Micol Pistelli, UNHCR)
- Affordable and Accessible Remittance Services for Refugees: A Toolkit (2018, byUnited Nations Capital Development Fund)
- Removing Barriers to Expand Access to Finance for Refugees (2017, Micol Pistelli, UNHCR)
- Infographic: How much do basic necessities cost in Lebanon?, AlJazeera (August, 2021)